Berlin house music veterans like Cinthie, Till Von Sein, Chopstick & Johnjon and Glenn Astro speak about the genre's turbulent and vibrant past in the techno capital.
The story of how techno came to dominate Berlin's nightlife is a well-documented one. But house music has long thrived in Berlin, with a history stretching back to the early '90s. Though it hasn't always been easy.
“When I first came here the music was so different,” DJ, producer and label owner Till Von Sein told me in an interview earlier this year. Von Sein arrived in the late ‘90s to a very different Berlin. Jazzanova’s Kaleidoskop residency was one of the most popular club nights in the city, featuring eclectic bookings that reached far and wide across the musical spectrum, including Louie Vega, Gilles Peterson, Carl Craig, Maurice Fulton and LTJ Bukem.
Though as Berlin veteran and Beste Modus label boss Cinthie tells it, eclecticism was the norm at the illegal warehouse raves she played in the early '90s. “I played some house, a lot of broken beat, some electro—real electro not electro house—and all kinds of groovy stuff, like minimal house and minimal techno, and even a little bit of techno.”
But as more and more permanent clubs sprang up, and DJs became known for specific sounds, techno got harder and house got deeper and more repetitive. And soon, minimal took over, leaving house all but forgotten.
“When I first moved here it was all about minimal, which for me, was the worst thing possible,” Till Von Sein complains. “Ugly people doing ugly drugs in ugly clothes dancing to ugly, boring music,” he chuckles. “I guess Richie Hawtin and Ricardo may see it differently, but for me it was like, ‘Jesus, what the fuck. Everybody's just on drugs and listening to just minimal techno.’”
“Minus parties were just the shit,” Johnjon of Chopstick & Johnjon remembers. “Everyone was raving about Minus parties and stuff like that. When we came and produced house around 110, 115 BPM, it was definitely something that was not regular,” he says.
Till Von Sein
Thankfully for Von Sein, minimal didn’t last forever. And with artists like Dixon—and eventually Mano Le Tough—adding more house influences with their parties and labels, by the late 2000s house was firmly back on the rise.
“I think the whole change came when Dixon started the label (Innervisions), and people opened up to more housier sounds again,” Von Sein said. “People like Mano Le Tough moved to Berlin, and did a club night where they mainly did disco and house, that helped a lot,” he said. Bookings for Mano Le Tough’s Passion Beat night at basement club Kleine Reise included acts like John Talabot, Nicolas Jaar, Session Victim and Young Marco, and helped Mano become an underground star.
These days, quality house music can be found at clubs across the city. Watergate on Wednesdays regularly brings serous selectors of the genre, including for Cinthie’s Beste Modus residency there. And bigger, multi-room clubs like Sisyphos often showcase a variety of house-oriented sounds.
“We love to play Sisyphos,” Johnjon says. “But if it's the more connoisseur places, I would say Prince Charles. They do a Heist night there. Freerange nights.”
“OHM is a really great club with really good bookings,” Money $ex Records cofounder Glenn Astro said. As a relative newcomer to the city, having moved to Berlin from a West German town near Cologne just a few years back, Astro brought his hip hop, jazz and house-leaning sensibilities with him, influencing the sound of the city in his own way—whether he’s actively trying to or not.
So will house ever replace techno as the Berlin sound? Highly unlikely. The city’s rich history with clubs like Tresor and its current “techno tourist” reputation with clubs like Berghain and ://about blank, mixed with its cold industrial aesthetics, make it the perfect breeding ground for such a heavy genre.
But it’s also a city of outsiders, rich with influences from around the globe. And once again, house is thriving.
Read the full feature How House Survived and Thrived in Techno Dominated Berlin by Chandler Shortlidge at Be-At.TV.